Dean O'Brien's Blog

Kramatorsk – New Beginnings

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Last week I returned to Kramatorsk where I was invited to be a guest speaker at a local school.  This was to be my second talk here, and it was great to be asked to return.

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I spoke about my ongoing projects in Ukraine, which of late, are more focussed in the east of the country.  As the war in the east of Ukraine seems to sit on a back burner with western media, I think it’s vital that the people here be heard.  It’s also important that people in the west know what’ it’s like to live here on a day to day basis.

As expected the children were a little bit shy to talk at first, which was only to be expected.  I discussed what initially brought me to Ukraine, my past projects here and showed a photo film ‘Katya’s Story’  which I made a few years ago whilst studying for my photography degree at Coventry University.

This was a great ice breaker which led us into a Q & A session. One of the questions I was asked was ‘What do people in your country think when they see what’s happening here on the news?’   I could only be honest and reply ‘It’s not on the news anymore, most people in the UK think the war in Ukraine finished long ago’.

They genuinely seem shocked, but I went on to explain that it only reinforced the reasons why I travelled here in the first place.  I also mentioned that due to this media blackout, it’s important now, more than ever, that freelancers such as myself be allowed to come and document what’s happening here.

I then asked what their hopes were for the future and how may people in the room wanted to remain in Ukraine once they have left school.  The majority replied that they wanted to leave.  This was not solely down to the war, but more down to the fact that they see Ukraine as a country which does not give them many opportunities.

Finally I announced that I would like to distribute a number of disposable cameras to the pupils at the school to start a small project with them.  The idea being that they can photograph ‘their’ everyday lives.  I want them to show us what they see on a daily basis.

They we’re a little concerned initially as they do not own what they described as ‘real cameras’.  I told them not to worry and reassured them that some of the greatest images out there were made using basic photographic tools.  These cameras will be ideal and the quality of the images is not important at this stage.

I see this project as a kind of ‘new beginnings’ for the pupils here.  It can’t be easy living so close to a conflict zone, and this project may help them to focus on something more positive.  I’ll get the images developed here in the UK and then return to Kramatorsk to discuss these with the pupils and take the project forward from there.

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Written by Dean O'Brien

October 3, 2018 at 4:33 pm

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Odessa Massacre – Trade Unions House Fire Anniversary – May 2nd 2018

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On May 2nd 2014 Odessa saw one the worst disasters in it’s history.  A total of 48 people were killed on this day.  6 people in the street and a further 42 died in a fire at Trade Unions House.  What exactly happened on that day depends a lot on who you talk to.

Graffiti around Trade Unions House tells it’s own story


The day before the anniversary I’d visited Trade Unions House and watched gradually how the flowers and icons has started build up.  I remained at a distance and didn’t want to intrude.

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The following day, on the actual anniversary of the fire, barriers had been set up around Trade Unions House to search and monitor those who were attending.  It was pretty pointless in all honesty as it seemed more focussed on controlling those who would be reporting from, or recording footage from the event.


In the morning, all seemed peaceful and calm.  The atmosphere was solemn as you’d expect but towards the afternoon that changed.  The heavy Police presence had (somehow??) allowed right wing extremists to enter through the barriers to Trade Unions House, to provoke and attempt to intimidate those who had come to lay flowers and show their respects.


I want to clarify one thing now.  There were no ‘pro-Russian’ supporters here, just relatives of the dead.  Mostly mothers and grandmothers who had arrived bringing flowers and religious icons.



I personally witnessed grandmothers and mothers of those who died in the fire being pushed, shoved and verbally abused by the provocateurs.  They were a mixture of Ukrainian far-right nationalists, football hooligans (ultras) and titushki (paid provocateurs).

Below (one of the main far right provocateurs), speaks to local media.


Later the Police, along with Ukrainian media were seen to be laughing and joking with the extremists and provocateurs.  I’ve been travelling to Ukraine for almost ten years now, so this comes as no surprise to me.  In Odessa, here too the Police have adopted the new ‘American cop’ look (with new uniforms and vehicles), but little else has changed.  The same goods just packaged differently.


Whilst wandering around I managed to have a quick chat with Natasha.  She tells me ‘The fascists have turned up. They have no respect for the living nor the dead’


Ukraine has a long way to go if it believes that they are ready to integrate with the rest of Europe by joining the EU.  It’ll be in a few years’ someone told me.  I think that’s a little optimistic.  Corruption still runs deep.  Too deep, as today clearly showed.    

Written by Dean O'Brien

June 2, 2018 at 8:35 pm

More to come..

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I’m back from Ukraine, and after travelling from one side of the country to the other, covering numerous events, I’m still trying to make sense of it all.

I travelled to Kiev initially then onto Odessa to cover the 4th anniversary of the Trade Unions House fire where 42 people died.  After that I headed East to Slavyansk then onto Kramatorsk (where I did a talk about my work), and finally Mariupol to cover Victory Day.

As is always the case,  there’s never enough time to complete all what I intend to do whilst I’m there.  Each of these places deserves it’s own blog post here and I’ll get round to it when I can.

I want to thank you all for continuing to follow my work.  Nothing much gets reported in the media these days about what’s happening in Ukraine, especially in the East.  I’m part of a small number of photographer’s working out here, each doing our own thing.

Anyway, I seem to be posting more stuff up on Instagram these days, especially whilst I’m in Ukraine, so feel free to follow me here.  I’m also fairly active on Twitter, so again, feel free to follow me here.





Written by Dean O'Brien

May 27, 2018 at 9:18 pm

Kramatorsk – Поехали!

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After leaving Sloviansk I then headed to Kramatorsk.  It’s only a short (and cheap) taxi ride.  It’s here that I meet Andrei.  Originally from Donetsk, Andrei now lives in Kramatorsk, and like many, has to make the occasional trip across into the non government controlled area to visit family etc..  Having to cross through both government (Ukrainian) and non -government (pro-Russian) controlled checkpoints, this is a trip that can take anything from 3 hours up to as much as 24, depending on the circumstances.  Although it has taken days on some occasions.

He offers to show me around  the city and introduces me to many local people living in the area.  As per, I head to where Lenin once stood.  Now stands a naked plinth painted in yellow and blue.  It looks freshly painted.  A passer by tells me this is because it’s regularly vandalised with swastikas, ss and nazi slogans (as the images below show).  Although under Ukrainian control, Kramatorsk (like Sloviansk) still carries a large amount of support for non -government (pro-Russian) forces.

I spend a lot of time here wandering around on my own during the day.  I took the steps of not carrying my SLR camera and opting to use my iPhone instead.  I wasn’t paranoid but there was a strange tension in the air here and I didn’t want to draw any unnecessary attention to myself.  Soviet mosaics still remain as do may Soviet street names.

Nightlife is pretty quiet here as one might expect.  There’s no curfew but the streets start to empty as darkness draws in.  Andrei introduces me to many of his family and friends.  We drink beer, eat pizza and talk about work, hobbies and what the future holds.  As with Sloviansk, life goes on.  I plan to document life here in a lot more detail when I return later this year.



Written by Dean O'Brien

February 2, 2018 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Ukraine

Sloviansk – Part 3: До свидания!

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As I prepare to head off from Sloviansk, I’m sorry to be leaving.  That might seem strange to some, but I’ve learnt a lot here and made some good friends.  Polina, her mother and father took the time to discuss the current situation here and what life is like for them on a daily basis.  These are the people we don’t hear about on the news.  Those trying to live in, or around a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine.   IMG_0915 copy

Although Sloviansk has many destroyed buildings, it’s parks and monuments still remain, and like many in Ukraine, are a gathering point for people in the evenings and weekends.

Whilst wandering around a park in the city, I spoke to Polina about which language she prefers to use, Russian or Ukrainian.  Like many people here, she can speak both, but prefers to speak Russian.  She also stressed how the most important thing for her is that she wants peace in her city.

Next stop: Kramatorsk..

Written by Dean O'Brien

November 23, 2017 at 7:44 pm

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Sloviansk – Part 2: Welcome..

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I knew within this city there were people who would want to tell me what life was like here.  Innocent people caught up in a conflict they never wanted.   On my first day I met 18 year old Polina who offered to show me around.  She speaks great English (much better than my Russian at least) and although she studies at university in Kharkiv, fortunately for me she was back home in Sloviansk for a few days.


As we wander the streets, I’m shown the sights and we visit what remains of the Koliba Restaurant destroyed in 2014 by heavy shelling.  Building after building line the roads marking a trail of devastation throughout the city.  It’s kind of hard to imagine what all this must have been like on the days when all this shelling actually took place.

Later, we head towards more residential, built-up areas and Polina invites me back to the apartment for tea that she shares with her mother.  It was here that I was shown damage caused by shells landing nearby to her apartment block back in 2014.

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One window remains broken, caused by shrapnel.  The cost is too much to repair, not to mention the fact that the war is still close by so there’s little point in starting to repair things just yet.  With winter just around the corner, it’s the last thing this family need.  The remaining windows now have tape placed across them, in the hope that this will stop them shattering and blowing shards of glass inwards, should another shell land within close proximity to their building.

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Living with the ‘not-knowing’ is the issue here.  Sloviansk is located just outside the ATO zone so although quiet, it is still considered a hot spot.

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These green gates, riddled with shrapnel from a rocket which landed nearby in 2014, mark the entrance to a local residents home.  I suppose they offer a short glimpse into what people here have to live with.  It doesn’t stop people going about their daily business though.  Buses run and kids go to school, but the huge military presence here is impossible to ignore.





Written by Dean O'Brien

November 6, 2017 at 7:47 pm

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Sloviansk – Part 1: ‘Welcome To Hell’

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After flying into Kiev it wasn’t long before I caught my train and headed east to the city of Sloviansk.  This was the first city to come under control of non-government (pro-Russian) forces in April 2014.  It was also the city where the first proper battle took place between government and non-government forces.

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Although only held for a short period of time, Sloviansk suffered tremendously from shell damage.  It’s residents now have to live with the after affects of this.  Damaged roads and the shelled remains of buildings pave the way into the city.

We don’t hear about these places on the news do we?  A combination of broken buildings and ruined lives.  Not important enough for Western media to report on.  To them, all the important action happened 3 years ago.  It seems that what remains, isn’t classed as newsworthy’ anymore.  The people here are aware of this, and this kind of ignorance has given them huge doubts about journalists and media outlets who come here, and their intentions.

Its not all doom and gloom though.  I feel safe enough walking around the city on my own and people are approachable, if a little wary.   The aren’t many foreigners here and those that are here mostly work for NGO’s.  I refrain from carrying an ‘attention grabbing’ SLR and rely on a smartphone, which captures acceptable images.

Many NGO’s are located here including some which cross into the non-goverment (pro-Russian) controlled areas.  They help with sanitation, clothing, food, water and even give financial aid.  Some NGO’s are better than others though, but any help is better than no help at all.

I continue to wander around the city, and as I crouch down to take an image, one passer by shouts out ‘Welcome to hell’.

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Written by Dean O'Brien

November 4, 2017 at 11:24 am

Posted in Ukraine

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